CATAWBA COUNTY, N.C. -- The vest that wraps around his golden fur reads "service dog," but Chatham, a 3-year old goldendoodle, is not bred for the purpose most often associated with that term. Chatham's special training helps him to help manage the behavioral disabilities of 4-year-old Ayden Silva, and his status is now at the center of a federal lawsuit filed this week against the Catawba County Board of Education.
Ayden Silva's parents say the school district's decision not to allow Ayden's 80-pound service dog in his pre-K classroom violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, and seriously impedes the progress they've made in helping their adoptive son manage his disabilities.
Document: Read the lawsuit
Ayden was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome when he was just 2 years old. (He's been with the Silvas since he was 8 months.) The associated brain damage manifests itself with obsessive-compulsive behavior, insomnia, and hyperactivity. His mother Jennifer says Ayden is prone to "melt downs" that can be brought on by simple stimuli like crowds or lights.
"The way it's been described to us from the doctors is like a short circuit. His brain just goes crazy because it doesn’t know how to interpret all the messages that the nerves are sending," Silva said. "When he melts, he has self aggression issues. He bangs his head, bites himself. He’ll slap himself--anything to try to make it stop."
The Silvas tried a number of different kinds of treatments and therapies, but eventually settled on a relatively new solution--a service dog. They found a trainer who found them a hypo-allergenic Goldendoodle they've named Chatham. They paid $7,500 to have him trained to help them manage their son.
Chatham wears a harness that identifies him as a service dog and, in public, is tethered to Ayden to keep him from suddenly running away. When Ayden melts down, Chatham puts his own body across him. Silva says it's called "deep pressure therapy" and both comforts her son, and keeps him from hurting himself.
This fall, when the Silvas entered Ayden in a pre-kindergarten program at Mountain View Elementary School near their Vale home, they thought that Chatham would go along.
"We set him up with the tools that we knew worked prior to him ever stepping foot in the school," Jennifer Silva explained. But after several weeks, they were told Ayden couldn't bring his dog to class.
Why the district made that decision is not exactly clear. Staff did meet with the family on several occasions, but the school board's attorney says further disclosure is against privacy rules.
Certainly, Ayden's age may be a factor. There is some concern, in the dog training industry, about a child so young managing a service animal. Or could it be other children? The Silvas are adamant that Chatham's training would keep him from being a distraction, even in a classroom full of 4 year olds.
In a statement, Crystal Davis explained, "Catawba County Board of Education is committed to the needs, rights and protection of all persons with disabilities and denies allegations that the school system has discriminated against this student. The school system acknowledges having worked diligently with the family and having had multiple meetings with the family to discuss and plan services for the student. Catawba County Board of Education declines to release confidential student information beyond that which has been set out in the complaint, however, it will respond formally to the motion and complaint as required by court rules."
The Silvas are represented by lawyers from the group Disability Rights NC.
"Disability Rights hopes that the public and especially school systems understand the importance of service animals for behavioral challenges such as Ayden," Holly Stiles said. "They’ve put Ayden in an impossible position. They’ve asked Ayden to choose between working with his service animal, who’s highly trained to help him with his disabilities, and receiving an education."
Jennifer Silva says the months that Ayden and Chatham have been separated have already begun to wear on their relationship, on Chatham's training, and on her son's behavior. Ayden now leaves school several hours early to give him more time at home. She says he'd suffered from separation anxiety when the school year began.
"Eventually it got to the point where he was sleeping with Chatham’s leash in his hand because he was so afraid that Chatham was going to leave him in the middle of the night," she said, crying. ""The big question now is can we preserve it. Can we get them back together soon enough to preserve the training and to let this dog know that he has a very big job to do?"
The lawsuit asks for an immediate permanent injunction that would allow Chatham to go to school with Ayden. It also asks for damages to cover the cost of any retraining the Silvas deem necessary now.